Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Talented Mr Minghella; Or, the Love Song of Mr Ripley and Mr Smith-Kingsley

Warning: This article contains spoilers about the Anthony Minghella film The Talented Mr Ripley (1999).

“Officially, there are no Italian homosexuals. It makes Michelangelo and Leonardo very inconvenient.” – Peter Smith-Kingsley, The Talented Mr Ripley

Despite the wholly involved performance by Matt Damon (Tom Ripley), the detached glamour of Jude Law (Dickie Greenleaf), and the elegant precariousness and at times frenzied passion displayed by Gwyneth Paltrow (Marge Sherwood), the character that
most inspired my review was the gay musician and opera repetiteur played by Jack Davenport (Peter Smith-Kingsley). The perfect foil to Dickie Greenleaf’s character, Peter Smith-Kingsley’s role was considerably enhanced by Minghella from the way it was envisioned by novelist Patricia Highsmith.

Strange was my inspiration, for it began with a single brief scene, which lasts for less than a minute but is perhaps the most perfect scene in the film or, for that matter, in any film I’ve seen. The scene in question follows the conversation that Tom and Peter have after the former is interrogated by the police in Venice with the latter acting as interpreter. The conversation reveals Tom in an almost naked state of vulnerability that he seems to want to hide from Peter, but partially lets slip through his words and the manner of his piano playing.

Tom is playing the Stabat Mater from Peter’s score. Peter is setting the table for dinner.
Peter: You don’t believe that letter, do you? Dickie’s letter? You believe it?
Tom: (still playing) I don’t know what to believe.
Peter: Imagine if he did kill Freddie. What that must be like. Just to wake up every morning. How can you? Just wake up and be a person. Drink your coffee.
Tom: Whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn't it? In your head. You never meet anybody that thinks they're a bad person.
Peter: But you're still tormented, you must be, you've killed someone.
Tom: Don’t you just take the past and put it in a room, in the basement, and lock the door and never go in there? That’s what I do.
Peter: God, yes. Though in my case, it's probably a whole building.
Tom: And then you meet someone special, and all you want to do is toss them the key. Say, 'Open up, step inside.' But you can't. Because it's dark. And there are demons. And if anybody saw how ugly it is...

Peter: (stands behind Tom, his hands on Tom’s shoulders as he continues to play the Stabat Mater) Now that’s the music talking. It’s hard to be bleak if you’re playing Knees Up, Mother Brown. (He plays a lively bit from the vaudeville tune with his arms on either side of Tom’s.)
Tom: (laughs as Peter sits beside him) I keep wanting to do that - fling the door open… just… let the light in, clean everything out. If I could take a giant eraser and rub out everything, starting with myself... The thing is, Peter if... (the first strains of the Stabat Mater begin to play in the background) if... if...
Peter: No key, huh?
The Stabat Mater continues into the next scene, which shows Peter rehearsing with his orchestra and soprano singer at the Santa Maria Della Pieta.

The scene in question:

Tom runs into the cathedral and stops just beyond the threshold, pausing as he is entranced by Peter at the organ. Peter is accompanying as well as conducting a rehearsal of the Stabat Mater, as a young boy sings and an orchestra of violinists brings Vivaldi’s piece to life in the Venetian (actually Sicilian) cathedral.

It’s almost a frozen-yet-fluid moment as Peter turns and looks at him from his vantage point high above Tom, and Tom waves slightly, love plastered on his face, like a little boy exchanging a furtive and overwhelming look of love with a childhood sweetheart in a school classroom.

The tenderness and happiness on Peter’s face are exquisite as he sways slightly to his rhythms, struggling to keep his composure in front of his orchestra, trying (and mostly succeeding) to maintain a controlled demeanour. The moment is completely shared by the two young men as they perhaps acknowledge to themselves for the first time that they are falling in love.

The scene can, perhaps, hold less significance when one is watching the film the first time around and is unaware of the fact that it will end in tragedy. That Tom Ripley is one of the finest tragic heroes ever to be captured on film is perhaps indisputable, and one of the ways in which this was achievable, at least for me, was his brief but almost unbearably beautiful relationship with Peter, which righted all the wrongs that Dickie Greenleaf had inflicted on Tom and gave him the opportunity to hand over the key to the demon-haunted basement of his past to someone who could love him and accept him for what he was. Why he chose to literally strangle the life out of the opportunity is one of the most challenging and enduring questions that The Talented Mr Ripley leaves us with.

To watch the scene where the Stabat Mater is played out with the knowledge of Tom’s last crime in the film is to read glimpses of meaning in the moment that raise even more questions about the bond that Tom and Peter form with each other, while recalling the slaughtered Dickie and all his shortcomings, if only in contrast to Peter’s absolutely guileless and selfless love for Tom, which is perhaps charged by more perceptiveness than it seems to be at first glance. The Stabat Mater plays no small role in this subtext. The moment the young singer is referring to is the sorrowful mother grieving beside her son as he hangs on the cross, having gotten there as a result of betrayal and the impenetrable human need to slaughter all that is good, everything that can lead to love and contentment. There is love, trust, and betrayal in Tom and Peter’s future, and Peter is perhaps aware of this. Does Peter play willingly into Tom’s hands, and is Tom already aware of the role he will play in asphyxiating Peter’s love as well as his musical talent?

Ironically, Tom and Peter are physically far apart from each other in this vivid scene representing their intimate connection, while they are lying together in the final scene of the film, which perhaps represents Tom Ripley’s ultimate betrayal of himself, and the person he could have been had he not chosen to wear the façade of another. Another exquisite emblem of irony which it is hardly possible to miss out on is Minghella’s choice of a canonical Christian hymn as the love song of two young men, whose relationship subtly undermines the overt principles represented by the ancient cathedral they are in, and yet perhaps sublimates narrow perceptions of human love. The brief shared moment takes their understanding and trust (at that minute) to an ideal level of human love and togetherness, exemplifying rather than contradicting the essential doctrines of religious feeling. It is gratifying to think that at that moment, Peter has no insight into what Tom’s hands will bring to him, and that Tom is unaware as well of the choice he will make to betray the only person who could love him as Tom Ripley.

Peter: Good things about Tom Ripley? That could take me some time. Tom is talented. Tom is tender. Tom is beautiful. Tom is a mystery. Tom is not a nobody. Tom has secrets he doesn't want to tell me, and I wish he would. Tom has nightmares. That's not a good thing. Tom has someone to love him. That is a good thing.

Listen to the track here:


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